Writing prompts can have a lot of different roles in our creative lives. They can nudge us to broaden our creative horizons, get us out of feeling stuck with our craft, or nudge us to take a closer look at ourselves. Since I’ve been taking my mental health and healing more seriously in recent years, I’ve become most interested in prompts that do the later.
I learned this prompt from essayist, editor, and novelist Adam Dalva in his craft talk at NYU Paris. Toward the end of his speech, he had a writing prompt to share with all of us. Since he’s a jovial and hilarious educator, he comically told our group that this writing prompt he was about to share…literally made a previous student flee from the classroom in tears. Many of us laughed a good hearty chortle — not mandatory kindness laughter, but the real kind. It sounded so absurd that I don’t think any of us expected just how powerful and visceral this prompt would be.
Let’s make this writing process feel natural.
To faintly simulate the effect of how prompts are gradually revealed in a live workshop, I’m going to break this piece up with a lot of images. I strongly suggest you take this prompt in stages. It won’t have the same effect if you read the entire thing and sit down to write — instead, begin reading, start writing, then come back when you’re ready for the next part of the prompt.
Write a question to someone from your past.
When you brainstorm this question, make it clear and intuitive what it is about. It shouldn’t be cryptic — it should have something to do with an important memory in your past, but if a stranger was to read your question, they should understand the context.
It can be a question to someone who’s gone. A question you can ask in the real world or one you can’t. It’s just important that it relates to your past, it’s personal, and addressed to a specific person.